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"The Trouble With Atheism" was the title of an interesting, if irritating, programme shown in December 2006 on British television's Channel 4 which was presented by the supercilious Rod Liddle. In fact, in my view, there is no problem with atheism and all the programme demonstrated was that there is a problem with a small number of atheists who tend to be unpleasantly arrogant and unnecessarily rude towards religious believers.

Whatever my problems with religion (and I have many), I respect most religious people as serious, sincere, decent and well-intentioned. Sadly the belief systems to which they adhere and the religious organisations that they support are in fundamental contradiction to evidence and science and encourage irrationality and sectarianism.

Liddle concluded his programme by asserting: "The true scientific position is: There may be a god, and there may not be a god. So why can't we leave it at that?"

Intellectually, Liddle's proposal is a false position because it implies that belief and non-belief in God are equally acceptable propositions. This is not true for two reasons:

1) In any situation - but perhaps most especially in a situation where the proposition being made is counter-intuitive - the burden of proof is on the person making the assertion. In a famous example conjured by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, anyone who argued that there is a celestial teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars would be expected to prove it; those who doubted the proposition would not be expected to disprove it. But the existence of God has not been proved.

2) In a rational world that generally relies on evidence, the proposition that there is a God and the proposition that there is not a God cannot be regarded as equally probable. In an English criminal court, we expect someone's guilt of a crime to be proven "beyond a reasonable doubt"; in an English civil court, we expect an assertion to be demonstrated "on the balance of probabilities". The existence of God should be subject to the same reasoning and, on this basis, the existence of God is highly improbable.

At a practical level, perhaps we could accept Liddle's conclusion if religious people simply declared something like: "There are things about our universe that I don't understand, especially how it was first created. Therefore, although there is no evidence for a God, I have faith that there is one. This is my private view - I do not expect anything as a result either of other people or of my society."

However, almost all religious persons go much, much further.

  1. They believe in a personal God who communicates with us through prophets and holy texts and with whom we can communicate through worship and prayer. But there is no credible evidence for this.
  2. They believe in an interventionist God who is able and willing to interrupt the natural or scientific course of events in ways that others would simply class as chance or coincidence and which believers class at their most dramatic as miracles. But again there is no credible evidence for this.
  3. They believe in an immortal soul and in the prospect of everlasting happiness in some kind of heaven or nirvana. But yet again there is no credible evidence for this.

The idea of a personal and interventionist God is common to the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has to be said that Hinduism and Buddhism do not propose such a version of God.

Different religions then have a set of more specific beliefs which are even more contrary to evidence and science. For instance, the Catholic Church believes in three persons in one God, the virgin birth of Christ, the resurrection of Christ from the dead, the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and the infallibility of the Pope when he is speaking 'ex cathedra'. Once again, there is simply no evidence for any of this.

Furthermore many religious people - especially those of a born-again or fundamentalist persuasion - believe that religion is not simply a personal matter but one which should influence public policy. So, for instance, some Christians believe that creationism should be taught in schools and abortion should be denied to all and some Muslims believe that all women in public must wear the veil and that government must be in accordance to shira law.

Does it matter whether religious beliefs are true or not? It matters because, if we assess truth on any basis other than evidence, then our lives and our societies are open to many dangers. I have written more about this in my essay on "The reason for truth" [click here].

It matters as well because the holding of absolute beliefs without evidence often leads to the vilification, persecution and even the murdering of others who hold different but equally absolute beliefs based on an equal lack of evidence, whether it be Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Hindus and Muslims in India, or Sunni and Shia in Iraq. Of course, there is an argument that, instead of religion shaping society, it is society that shapes religion and therefore religion should not be blamed for discrimination, but at best religion is a convenient badge or vehicle for such discriminiation and at worst religion is a legitimisation and even an incitement to such discrimination.

In his television programme, Liddle argued that atheism has high priests and dogmatic beliefs, just like fundamentalist religion. This analogy is utterly false.

Religion deals in absolute truths revealed by an omniscient and omnipotent God. To challenge or even question those truths or books which testify to them or the leaders who propagate them is unacceptable and leads to condemnation, expulsion or even annihilation.

In total contrast, atheism - which rests on evidence and science - has no absolute truths, no sacred books, and no revered leaders. All science and all scientists are up for challenge. The central essence of the scientific method is that all its statements are ultimately provisional, the best explanation based on current evidence. Scientists are constantly conducting peer reviews, carrying out further experiments and seeking further evidence. Scientists do not prohibit challenge; they positively seek it.

When the evidence requires it, the thinking of generations - such as Newtonian physics - can be totally revised (as by Einstein's theory of relativity).


Last modified on 17 May 2007

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